Ideas for Ventra on Metra

November 8, 2013 at 10:46 pm

Today, the Niles Herald-Spectator ran a story that Metra will use Ventra for fare payment on at least three lines by summer 2014. There is already a state mandate to integrate the fare payment for all 3 RTA agencies (CTA, Pace, Metra) by 2015.

There were no specific details about how Metra will collect the correct fare. Metra operates on a zone-based system, with fares based on distance, whereas CTA and Pace charge flat fares. This makes fare collection on Ventra a bit more complex, but certainly not impossible. Many systems already do this – including one of Cubic’s (Ventra operator) other clients.

The biggest “challenge” cited in the article is having to accept both credit/debit and Ventra cards. This doesn’t seem like much of a challenge. The way I see it, there are at least two options:

  1. Find handheld card readers for conductors, which accept contactless cards (i.e. Ventra) and have a magnetic slider for credit/debit cards; or
  2. Accept only Ventra onboard trains, with vending machines that accept credit/debit/cash at every Metra station

As far as accepting Ventra on the train, I believe Metra should do the following:

  1. Install turnstiles at all downtown stations (4); and
  2. Install Ventra readers on non-downtown Metra platforms; and/or
  3. Install Ventra readers in the vestibules of each train car

By reducing the need for conductors to sell and check tickets on the train, Metra could theoretically reduce its staff (and expenses) by automating fare collection. In the long run, these cost savings could lead to greater service (like short-running trains within Chicago and inner suburbs for greater frequency?) or cheaper fares/less fare increases. To ensure compliance, random fare inspections would still take place. Turnstiles at the most popular stations (downtown) would ensure even more widespread payment.

Lots of turnstiles at the WTC PATH station in Manhattan mean no long lines to get onto the trains. Image: Cambridge in Colour.

To pay the fare, passengers would “tap in” once when waiting on the platform/entering the train, and “tap out” once they leave. This is how payment is done on Caltrain, parts the Greater Anglia service in Greater London, which is integrated with the Underground, as well as the RER/Transilien in metropolitan Paris (and many other cities, I’m sure). The fare is deducted from the balance on the card based on the zone pairs; to ensure payment, the balance on the card must either 1) be at least as much as the most expensive possible journey cost based on the origin and furthest destination, or 2) a set minimum to cover some of the cost, such as $5 (i.e. if the journey cost $7 with only $5 on the card, $2 would be considered a loss or negative balance, unless auto-reload was enabled).

Arguably, this would ensure greater fare payment than currently exists. On a recent round-trip, my fare was inspected on only one leg of the journey. Were I required to tap in/out each time, under threat of penalty for being caught on a train (or leaving one) without having tapped in, Metra is at least assuring itself that its passengers are paying. Currently, conductors can forget to check everyone’s fare. If you haven’t paid, you might get a free ride. I find this happens more often on weekends when you board a train at a non-downtown station and are sitting upstairs, and it’s costing Metra (and everyone else) money.

Fare payment validator to check in/out of a journey on the suburban Transilien network of Paris. Image: Wikipedia.

A system such as this could also be smart enough to deduct the best fare for the customer. On Metra, for example, you can spend $7 for unlimited rides all weekend. It would no longer be necessary to specify that a weekend pass must be purchased, since Ventra could calculate the best deal for me. If I pay for two journeys between Evanston and downtown ($4.25 each) on the weekend, I’d pay $8.50 without a weekend pass – but Ventra could easily calculate that the best deal for me would be $7 (the weekend pass). I argue that this really wouldn’t lose Metra money, because most conductors and ticket agents already give riders advice on the best ticket to buy for the lowest price. This system is called a “price cap” and it is used on TfL in London.

What comes as a new development would really be integration of Metra, Pace, and CTA fares. As I’ve argued before with my RTA wish list, all trips within Chicago should cost the same, regardless if taking Metra or CTA. Chicagoans should be able to purchase one single daily/monthly pass and use whichever transportation system is most convenient at the time. When transferring between systems, the transfer should be low-cost (preferably no-cost) and simple. Hopefully, CTA, Pace, and Metra find a way to integrate fares that is attractive to transit users.


The technology for Ventra to accommodate Metra’s fare structure already exists because Cubic, the company that runs Ventra, is the same company that runs Oyster in London. Cubic already has experience with zone-based and “best value” fare calculation because it’s done it for London. Metra should begin to reduce its reliance on conductors and ticket agents by installing card readers on station platforms or in trains, and installing turnstiles at downtown stations, leading to cost savings. Metra should also integrate its fare structure with CTA (and Pace) such that transfers are seamless and affordable, potentially even allowing all inter-Chicago trips at one cost, regardless of the transit system used.